What is a charter school?
Charter schools are schools that are publicly funded but operated by independent groups. (The name comes from the contract, or "charter," that a group gets to operate a school.)
Charter schools don't have to follow the same regulations from states, municipalities and school districts as traditional public schools. In general, charter schools have more flexibility to set curriculum and school hours and rules than traditional public schools. And because they're not bound by union contracts, they also have more leeway to hire and fire teachers. In exchange, they have to meet accountability standards. About 15 percent of charters nationally have been closed for failing to do so.
Charter school laws vary from state to state, and some states have no charter schools at all. The first charter school law was enacted in 1991 in Minnesota. Over the past decade, the number of charter schools and students in the US has grown explosively. About 5 percent of all public school students now attend a charter school. In some districts, including Washington, DC, the proportion is much higher.
The Obama administration has strongly supported charter schools, awarding billions of dollars in a competitive grant program to states with charter-friendly laws.
Education reformers, a group that includes both Republicans and Democrats, like that charter schools offer more flexibility to try out new ideas and can offer a high-quality education in dysfunctional urban districts.
Teachers' unions say they support high-quality charter schools in theory, but they're often skeptical of them in practice. Charter opponents argue that don't all provide a high-quality education (despite the high-profile success stories), that accountability standards aren't rigorous enough, and that charter schools exclude too many students who are difficult to educate. In some cases, they're also operated for profit.
Just like traditional public schools, charter schools can be effective or ineffective, depending on teachers, leadership and other factors. But some have achieved notable success in helping low-income and minority students achieve high test scores and prepare for college.
How is a charter school different from a neighborhood public school?
There are a lot of differences, both in how the schools are set up and what the education looks like day-to-day.
Both are "public" schools because they're funded with taxpayer money, don't charge tuition and are required to take any student who wants to enroll. But while a neighborhood public school is governed by a school district and its school board, charter schools are operated by independent groups, which can be either nonprofit or for-profit. Students also aren't assigned to charter schools based on where they live. Instead, parents enter a lottery for charter school seats.
Charter schools also aren't bound by union contracts or most of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. Instead, they're required to demonstrate that they're getting results and that they have financial stability. Charter schools that fail can be closed.
In some states, charter schools can hire teachers who aren't certified by the state. More charter schools than public schools pay teachers based on performance. They also have more freedom in what the educational experience is like. Charter schools can require uniforms or not; build a curriculum around a specific issue or goal, such as science education or college preparation, or a teaching method, such as Montessori; lengthen the school day and year; and make other changes that are difficult or uncommon at the school district level.